The Left Coast

…quite simply, I was in love with New York. I do not mean “love” in any colloquial way, I mean that I was in love with the city, the way you love the first person who ever touches you and you never love anyone quite that way again. I remember walking across Sixty-second Street one twilight that first spring, or the second spring, they were all alike for a while. I was late to meet someone but I stopped at Lexington Avenue and bought a peach and stood on the corner eating it and knew that I had come out out of the West and reached the mirage.

– Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem

This is the seventh in a series of posts about New York.

People sometimes ask me: Do you miss Los Angeles?

The answer is no, I do not. And not for any hostile reason, rather, I simply don’t know LA anymore. I go back to California once or twice a year to visit my family, and when I do, people give me directions to places that didn’t exist when I last lived there, and then get angry at me when I tell them: I have no idea what you are talking about.

When I first moved to New York, I had no idea where anything was. They tell you: The grid system is so easy! But until you figure out the direction of traffic on the one-way avenues, you are doomed to exit subway stations and walk a block or two in the wrong direction before you get a sense of what is north and what is south.

Before I moved to New York, though, I visited. First, in 2001, not long before the tragedy. And again a year or so later. I had just moved to Washington, DC at the time, and my best friend called and said: I’m doing a show in New York; you should come visit.

I was a law student, and had no money, and didn’t think I would be able to make the trip. I wasn’t about to drive myself, and being from California, I knew nothing about trains. In fact, I had trouble remember the words for train travel in English, because trains were an anomaly in Southern California. I’d learned the vocabulary for the first time in French, before spending a chunk of one summer in Europe, and I’d never bothered to figure out how to say anything about rail travel in English, leaving a last-minute Amtrak journey an unlikely proposition.

Then, serendipitously, a law school classmate said he was going to New York that particular weekend, did I want a ride? I was terribly homesick for California, and for everything I had previously known, so seeing Jade was going to be the perfect cure.

Four and a half hours after leaving Washington that weekend, my classmate dropped me off somewhere in the East 50s, nowhere near the hotel where I was supposed to meet my best friend. Ever resourceful in the era before smartphones were A Thing, I ducked into a Barnes & Noble; picked up a hotel guide; found the exact address and wandered around until I’d gotten my bearings and could tell north from south.

I finally found the hotel on Lex and 51st, and waited inside at the bar for Jade. She came in not long after, and we had a wonderful weekend of shopping, and laughing, and eating junk food, and buying matching black turtlenecks at Bloomingdale’s.

I pass by that hotel frequently, now; my office is near Bloomingdale’s. The things that were once so delightfully foreign have become mundane, and I am not entirely sure when it happened – when I stopped being From California, and became A New Yorker.

For years, I had forgotten about that weekend, until I recently chucked the ancient turtleneck, which had become so threadbare it was unwearable. For a moment, before I tossed the shirt into the rag pile, I remembered what it was like to be New to New York, and to not know the streets from the avenues. I recalled the joy of wandering; the security of the grids; the grit and grime and hot garbage smell; the skyline view on the approach from the Lincoln Tunnel.

I remembered the smell of smoke in the hotel bar, and the fear of being Completely Lost in the days before the phone in my pocket could not only find the hotel, but direct me there. I remembered being young, and scared, and falling in love with the chaos around me.

I don’t miss Los Angeles, though. I don’t really know it at all anymore.


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